Authors: Heather Long
“Seriously?” Cassie stared at Jude, her mouth open as he tossed a wicked, double-edged knife into the air and caught it, first by the tip and on the second toss by the black leather handle. The blade was nearly as long as her forearm.
Intellectually, she understood that he was over forty-some-odd years old. Jacob mentioned he’d been conceived around Woodstock, an event that her generation looked at with awe. And tried to repeat only to fail epically. But he looked younger than Cassie, his easygoing manner and genial smile tugging at her heart because it was so much like Billy’s.
“Defend yourself.” He totally decried that viewpoint when he threw that wicked-looking blade at her. Blanching, she jerked to the left and stared, heart pounding, at the blade quivering in the wall where her face had been.
“You threw it at me.” She could barely wrap her mind around the concept much less accept the blade’s humming vibration where it still trembled in the wall.
“I told you to defend yourself.” The blade jerked free from its sheath in the wooden strut next to her and soared back to Jude’s hand. His carefree grin seemed damn near demonic with glee. “Defend yourself.”
The blade hurtled through the air at her again, and she flung herself out of the path, bruising her shin. But instead of just slamming into the wooden support, the blade sliced across her shoulder. The bite of steel against her flesh stung. Clapping a hand against the bloody gouge, she glared across the room. Helcyon and Jacob sat side by side with their backs turned toward her.
“Son of a bitch.” She swore and glared at Jude, who already held his wicked blade balanced against his index finger. He gave her a tight, taunting smile.
“Are you struggling with the concept of defending yourself? I can define it if you need me to.”
Eyes narrowing, her heart did a one-two slam punch against her ribs, and this time when the blade flew, she flung her hand out and it bounced off her shield.
“There ya go.” Jude grinned. “That wasn’t so hard. But if you need me to repeat the instructions again, just let me know.”
Anger buzzed at the insult and her shield collapsed. The dagger leapt from the ground, rebounding as though connected to some mystical string that Jude controlled, and landed in his palm. He didn’t bother to let her catch her breath before he flung it at her again.
Hissing at the pain stretching the slice on her shoulder, she held up both hands. The blade bounced off the shield again, but a rubber ball slammed into her cheekbone with a solid whap.
Tears flared in her eyes, and she glared down at the rubber ball that bounced harmlessly to the wooden floor and rolled away. Jerking her head up, she gaped at the blade flying at her again. Squeaking, she ducked.
Instead of thunking into the wall, the blade sliced across her back, a nick that burned.
“Defend yourself, not squeak like a mouse.” Jude held that damn blade again and pointed at her. “De-fend.”
Rage bloomed in a quiet place, deep inside her soul. She wasn’t a fighter. She’d told them that from the beginning. She didn’t want to use knives or swords or any other archaic device for that matter. She used her mind in negotiations, her skill with words, and her ability to read people.
Did she look like some kind of Buffy the goddamn magic slayer to them?
The rage took root and flooded through her, gathering the tendrils of languid energy that overflowed in her center, and when that super-sports-Sunday-sized blade flew at her this time, she glared at it and it trembled midtumble. The black-handled blade shook violently, suspended in the air, before reversing trajectory and slicing back toward Jude’s smug face.
The idiot beamed as the blade shook to a halt and reversed again, returning toward her. Cassie glared at the dagger and batted it again, the energy pouring out of her. When Jude sent it a third time, she slammed her foot into the ground.
Sweat poured down her face, soaking the sleeveless cotton tunic. The droplets of perspiration stung the slice on her shoulder. Tears of frustration welled up. Her stomach cramped.
The blade froze, caught between her will and Jude’s.
Heat rolled up from her toes, flushing wildfire through her body until it bloomed in her mind like one of those old videos of a nuclear mushroom cloud.
The blade began to glow, burning from a silvery light to a blinding white before it exploded in a shower of sparks that blackened the throw rug beneath it. Flames shot up from the woven carpet, and Jude let out a shout.
He dashed forward and began to stamp on the blue-white flames, fists lifted in the air, and it took a moment for his exclamations of glee to punch through the buzzing in her ears. Cassie stared at him, wavering on her feet. The anger spiral dancing through her system turned to annoyance.
Jude reached over to her and picked her up, swinging her sopping-wet body around in a jig. “Fantastic. Took me more than a few knives to figure that one out. You’re a natural.”
He planted a smacking kiss on her cheek, tugging a reluctant grin from the coals of her irritation.
At the bar, Jacob and Helcyon continued to sit and chat as though nothing else were going on, and she wrinkled her nose.
“Now what?” she asked Jude after she disentangled herself from his enthusiasm.
“Now, we go outside and do it again. You need to be able to deflect as naturally as breathing and to hold that shield against more than one object. Luckily, they had a whole bunch of these rubber balls at the gas station.” Jude’s too-cheerful grin was infectious.
“Fine.” She waved him onward. The cuts on her shoulder and back stung, but if her men were going to act like it was nothing, then so would she.
She ignored them both as she trundled after Jude and clenched her hand to hide the trembling in her fingers.
* * * *
Jacob exhaled a long breath as the door to the deck closed behind them.
“Breathe,” Helcyon advised quietly.
They turned as one to look out the great windows and watched as Cassie trailed Jude down the wooden steps to the grassy clearing beyond the flammable porch.
“Like you weren’t ready to jump in front of that blade when it cut her.” Jacob snorted and tossed back the last of the beer that had lost all of its chill in his grip.
“She has to learn. I hate the idea as much as you do, but if another incident like those with Michael happens, this can buy her the time she’ll need for us to get there.”
“Agreed, and Jude was a good choice. He likes her.” If the kid weren’t a damn puppy, he’d worry about the easy affection he showed toward Cassie, but Jude’s interest wasn’t remotely sexual. He
her and he was
for her. That counted a lot in Jacob’s book.
“Apparently he likes her enough to be brutal.” Helcyon grimaced, and they both winced as three rubber balls hit Cassie chest, shoulder, and knee. Fortunately, the second blade Jude produced still hung in the air between them.
“One day of training isn’t going to be enough.”
“It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to buy her seconds.”
Jacob barely heard the words. He slid off the stool and crossed the five steps to the window with Helcyon his shadow as a second blade ignited and a rubber ball turned to ash.
“Is she pulling from you?” Jacob clenched his fists, reminding himself that he’d asked Jude to do this. The mantra barely kept him in place or cooled the urge to pound the younger Wizard.
“No. You?” Helcyon’s gaze remained fixed as the scattered balls around Cassie rose up in the air and began to swarm toward her. She deflected more than half, but that left the other half to hit her.
Wincing, Jacob glanced down at his empty beer bottle. “Who’s night was tonight?”
“Yours.” Helcyon smiled.
“Damn.” A rueful chuckle escaped. She was going to kill him when this was over.
“Watch.” Helcyon’s words pulled his attention up as the balls swarming Cassie began to rebound and launched as one at Jude. The Wizard laughed, catching them in a juggling act that creased Cassie’s face with smiles.
“Okay, maybe she isn’t going to be that pissed.” But no sooner had the words left his mouth than the woman of his dreams turned toward them and gave him a one-fingered salute.
Helcyon clapped him on the shoulder. “Come. We need to discuss our strategy while she is preoccupied.”
Nodding slowly, Jacob turned away from the window and headed toward the kitchen. It went against the grain to leave her out there, but Domoir was close and their shielding was secure. Jude wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
Except a few nicks and bruises. Their woman was determined to see her plan of meeting the inquisitor general through.
“She will be fine,” Helcyon repeated.
“Who are you trying to convince?” Jacob dropped the empty glass bottle into the recycling bin and opened the fridge to retrieve another.
A yowl from outside followed by a series of small popping explosions jerked his spine.
“I’ll take one of those,” Helcyon said abruptly, and Jacob grabbed a second beer to hand over.
“I think we’re going to need it.”
They glanced back toward the living area and the glass windows. Jude was standing in front of Cassie, arms gesticulating in animation. Yes, it was a good thing that Jude was teaching her.
She looked ready to cut off his balls.
Jacob adjusted himself and popped open the beer. “The Council doesn’t want you there, so how good a glamour can you spin?”
“It is not my expertise, but what did you have in mind?”
“We mix the magic up. They’ll be looking for Fae constructs, so we go old school and use potions.” Jacob had been thinking about it since Gustav ordered him to bring Cassie and leave Helcyon out of it. No way would Helcyon allow Cassie to go into the lion’s den without him.
In this, Jacob agreed. Helcyon’s focus would be protecting Cassie, freeing Jacob to deal with the elders. There wasn’t a Council member under a thousand years of age. That made them all a threat.
“I know a Brownie who could help,” Helcyon said into the silence.
“Same Brownie that put that glamour on Cassie back at the hospital?” Jacob lifted his brows. That glamour hadn’t held well, and he’d seen right through it. Despite her numerous injuries at the bomb site, she’d been freshly pink and healed beneath the glamour.
“Yes, but Cassie disrupts magic, and it itched her. I know how not to scratch it off.”
Jacob nodded slowly and took a long pull of the beer. “Then we double it up with a potion. That way if they sniff the magic, it will smell Wizard, and they will think you’re one of my guys.”
Helcyon grinned slowly. “You have a devious mind, Jacob. I could grow to admire that.”
“Don’t get all warm and mushy on me yet. That’s the easy part. The hard part is going to be…”
Jacob stood near the door as Cassie limped back inside. Sweat plastered her hair to her face. Her cotton top clung to her curves, outlining her breasts. Her jeans were torn at the knee, and the air around her stank of ozone, burnt hair, blood, and the barest hint of sun and sand that he associated with her.
Her golden eyes were dull and dark. Shadows smudged the skin beneath her eyes, and if it was possible, she looked like she’d lost weight. He grimaced, holding fast to the reins of his control. The only thing saving Jude’s hide was the younger Wizard looked worse than she did, with one eyebrow singed off his face and ash coating his skin.
“She’s good, boss. Even exhausted, nothing got through this last time.” Jude held a thumb up in approval. Cassie paused long enough to give Jude an affectionate hair ruffle before limping past. The weariness in her gaze swept over Jacob and then past him toward the stairs.
“Get some rest. We’ll fill you in on the plans later.” Jacob nodded to Jude and walked down the hall, scooping Cassie up into his arms. She made a disgruntled noise but sagged against his chest, head on his shoulder.
She must have been exhausted.
He took the stairs two at a time and nudged open her door with a foot and closed it with his hip. She said nothing as he carried her into the bathroom and he settled her on the sink counter. He abandoned her for a moment to turn the shower jets on full and then returned to catch her face in his hands. She met his gaze dully.
“You okay, sweetheart?”
“No. I’m tired. I’m dirty. I smell. And I kept blowing things up.”
Despite the urge, he fought the smile threatening to curve his mouth upward. “Jude said you did it, though, you kept the shield up and deflected everything.”
“Ugh.” Cassie scrubbed her hands over her face. “I don’t think I’ve been this tired since I led the media blitz for…no, I don’t think I was this tired then.”
“Magic is exhausting. It makes some things easier.” Jacob held out his hand and a brush rose up from the vanity to land in his grasp. Stroking it over her hair, he pushed aside the sweat-soaked strands. “But it can lead to overconfidence. Tell me about when you opened the gate earlier.”